In order to legally drive I had to get a driver’s license. To get one, I had to be 15 or older, pass a vision exam and take a driver’s test. The license also served as an identity card. I had to carry it with me at all times because if an Officer of the Law asked to see the license, I was required to produce it. Today, some 75 years later, my license can be revoked if I no longer meet driving standards. Every driver has to be licensed even if he/she does not own the vehicle.
When I purchased my first car, a used 1941 two-door Chevy, I had to be of age and meet certain physical, mental, legal and other standards in order to drive it. They were imposed to help ensure that I would not engage in activities that could harm others. The law also required that I get insurance. That guaranteed that if I got into an accident that harmed someone, they could be compensated. The registration certificate identified me as the car’s owner along with its vehicle identification number (vin) and the license plate number The registration was updated annually after the car was inspected and I paid the license and insurance fees and the taxes. When I sold the car the license plate was changed and its ownership was transferred to the new owner.
I find myself wondering, why aren’t “guns” treated in a similar way to vehicles? Legislation and licensing with the objective of keeping of track of weapons capable of mass-killings, their owners and users, and the death, destruction and harm that they can cause, could make it possible to limit some of the damage those weapons cause and to hold the perpetrators accountable for their actions. Recently there has been a significant increase in civilian mass killings. Not only have the perpetrators used assault weapons but, in the US, the UK, France, Germany and Canada, vehicles have also been used as weapons.
Let’s compare automobiles to guns (also known as firearms.) Let me start by saying that I do not own any firearms. When I was growing up I had a .22 that I used for target practice and occasionally for hunting. I turned out to be a reasonably good shot, but that’s another story. I have never fired a small hand gun and have no interest in acquiring a firearm, but I can respect those who consider owning one important.
Back when I was growing up (in the 1930’s and 40’s), there were rifles, shotguns and handguns — pistols and six-shot revolvers. Some pistols and rifles had a magazine — a.k.a. a clip — that could hold five bullets. Machine guns were mounted on a tripod and had to be handled by two people. Sub-machine guns were cumbersome and less accurate. Handheld military assault weapons — automatic and semiautomatic rifles — that can shoot multiple rounds, like the AR-15s, did not come into existence until the very end of World War II and afterward. Back then gun owners used them for sport, like target practice to become sharpshooters; for hunting; and for self-protection. Military assault weapons that shoot multiple rounds provided little if any additional benefit for those purposes. In the earlier years some firearms got into the hands of gangsters and those engaged in criminal activity.
There were no semiautomatic rifles, semis with bump stocks or automatic rifles, (with the exception sub-machine guns,) that type of weapon did not exist in the earlier era. The recently developed firearms were designed for, and are used as military assault weapons. They are capable of killing a large number of people at the same time. That ability has resulted in mass-killings, making these kinds of weapons markedly different from their predecessors. They have been used in civilian settings like schools including Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland and at large performances and concerts. Often the perpetrator does not even know the victims!
If a weapon is capable of mass-killings in a civilian setting, why not subject it to licensing in a way similar to the way vehicles are? Any type of firearm that has been used for that purpose, is clear proof it has that capability. What it is called is not relevant. In short, ask the question, “Is it possible for this type of firearm to be used for mass-killings of civilians?” When the answer to that question is “Yes”, it should be subject to licensing.
As part of that licensing process gun owners could consider contributing to a fund to compensate those who are harmed by guns capable of a mass killing. For those who insist on owning weapons of that type, it would be like taking out an insurance policy against the harm they can cause. I am not suggesting in any way that this be mandatory, but an option for responsible gun owners to discern for themselves. In that way, those who elect to own guns would bear the cost of the damage they can cause, rather than placing the burden on society and those of us who elect not to own guns.
If a licensing system were implemented, it could be similar to the one currently used for vehicles. In order to be able to own or use a weapon capable of mass-killings, the person would have to have a license. To get the license he/she must be of age and meet the physical, mental, legal and other standards imposed to help ensure that they will not engage in activities that would cause harm to others.
In addition, other restrictions could apply. The owners would have to provide the serial number of each weapon owned, experience using it. This process could also reveal prior felonies and any additional information considered relevant. A licensing fee would be charged that would help cover the cost of keeping track of the weapons. When the firearm is sold or transferred, the previous owner is obligated to provide information regarding the new owner and when the transfer occurred. The shift in ownership cannot occur until a background check has been completed. Failure to comply with the restrictions would make the previous owner responsible for any harm the weapon causes in the future. The users and owners of weapons capable of mass-killings could be charged additional fees to help ensure that anyone harmed by them is compensated.
Clearly we will not be able to prevent all civilian mass-killings. We can, however, make them less likely to occur by making it harder for potential perpetrators to get access to the weapons, by disclosing their efforts to obtain them, and by learning more about what motivates them to want to engage in that type of behavior.
The traditional reasons for owning firearms are often used as a basis for not regulating weapons capable of mass-killings. They simply do not apply to those recently developed weapons. It is time to acknowledge the new devices for what they are and develop rules that make it more difficult for those who use them for mass killings to have access to them. Furthermore, when perpetrators cause harm they should be held accountable for their actions.
Gun Licensing Laws
It is interesting to note that current gun licensing regulations vary widely from one country to another and from one jurisdiction to the next. According to a recent New York Times article, How to Buy a Gun in 15 Countries, the United States has lenient regulations and Japan the most restrictive ones. The US has a two-step process. Pass an instant background check that considers criminal convictions, domestic violence and immigration status. Then buy the gun. There is plenty of evidence that the background check is incomplete and inaccurate. Moreover, federal law does not require a background check when buying directly from a private seller. In Japan it is necessary to go through 13 steps before you can buy any firearm. Only after going through all those steps can the transfer of ownership occur.
Some States in the US have more stringent requirements including waiting periods and expanded background checks. In North Carolina, for example, handguns are treated significantly differently than rifles or assault weapons. To buy, sell, give away, transfer, or receive a pistol or handgun, you can apply for the permit online or in person at your local county sheriff’s office. To carry a concealed handgun, you must apply for and get a separate concealed handgun permit. You must turn the application in at your local county sheriff’s office at which time arrangements will be made to obtain a set of fingerprints. In North Carolina the only rules that apply to use or ownership of rifles, shotguns or assault weapons and those weapons capable of mass-killings are the lenient federal regulations.
Consider introducing legislation that prior to any transfer of any weapon capable of mass-killing, a detailed certified background check must be conducted to ensure that the potential recipient complies with the ownership standards and is not likely to be a potential risk. The document then becomes part of the official record and the transfer cannot occur without it. When a background check has not been conducted, any subsequent harm caused by the weapon becomes the responsibility of its original owner and intermediary.
Every weapon has to have its unique serial number. The serial number makes it possible to identify its authorized owner. Any weapon without one must be turned over to the authorities and destroyed. Anyone who violates this provision and who has a weapon without a serial number or one where the number is damaged or not discernible and who fails to give it up, should have all of their weapons confiscated and be subject to penalties.
Weapons Capable of Mass-killing
Again I suggest, let’s recognize semiautomatic and automatic rifles for what they are and have the potential of being used for, namely, for mass-killings and establish regulations designed to restrict their use for that purpose in a civilian setting. The first step would be to treat all those weapons in the same way we treat vehicles.
Consider this approach, the owners of weapons capable of mass-killings consider it important to own one. They should be proud of their right to own it and of their firearm and be willing to license it, just like a Mercedes. They should also consider setting up a fund to compensate those civilians who have been killed or harmed by others using those type of weapons.
Clearly, we won’t be able to prevent all mass-killings, especially since we don’t have a clear understanding of their motivation. We can, however, make them less likely to occur by making it harder for potential perpetrators to have access to those weapons, by disclosing their efforts to get them, and by trying to learn more about what makes them want to engage in that activity in the first place.
I’m going to put on my economist’s hat here for a moment. It would be very useful to know from a benefit/cost perspective how effective different licensing regulations on weapons capable of mass-killings would be in reducing the number of those incidents. Since different countries and jurisdictions have adopted different rules, it would be possible to study the effectiveness of various types of regulations and to estimate the cost of implementing them.
I will leave it to psychologists and others to explain why this type of activity occurs. As an economist, however, I can say that any activity designed to prevent all future similar events is unlikely to be 100% effective. Consequently, it is important to determine and ensure that the cost of preventive activities are worth the benefits they provide.
By taking proactive steps, it is highly likely that, as a society, we will make the harm that those weapons cause less likely and it will be more likely to be able to hold the perpetrators accountable.